Diversity in the Field

Christina Knoll ’11

Two dozen small satchels in bright colors and patterns were hung on a fence at the entrance to an undeveloped property at the north end of Block Island, where narrow trails traverse dense thickets of berry-producing shrubs. When one of the satchels twitched, its neighboring bag followed suit until all were aflutter. Inside each was a tiny bird—most named for colorful body parts like yellow-rumped warbler, ruby-crowned kinglet, blue-headed vireo, or red-breasted nuthatch—and all had been captured in a nearby mist net during their southbound migration.

One by one, the birds were removed from their satchels by a team of seven students and recently graduated biologists, who weighed and measured the birds, assessed their age and fat levels, and attached tiny aluminum bands to their legs before releasing them. Occasionally, birds would fly right back into the nets, where they would dangle awkwardly before being removed and released again.

“It’s sort of like Christmas every time you open one of the bags to see what kind of bird is inside.”

“It’s sort of like Christmas every time you open one of the bags to see what kind of bird is inside,” said Christina Knoll, a senior from New Jersey and the only undergraduate working on the project.

The work is at times fast and furious, with measurements, codes, and species names being called out in rapid succession as one of the team tries to record the data. But it is also a fun working environment, with all of them making jokes, sharing the excitement of a new species, and reveling in their teamwork.

For Knoll, this full-time internship was the culmination of four years of working on ornithological research with Professor Scott McWilliams and his doctoral student Adam Smith. As a freshman and sophomore, Knoll took care of temporarily captive birds, feeding them special diets, weighing them daily, and cleaning up after them. The fieldwork this year was the reward for the earlier dirty work.

“This island is a stopover point for young birds,” Knoll explained. “We’re examining bird migration—how long they stay here, their movements while they’re here, how their body condition affects how long they stay. For some of them, we track their movements around the island after we release them.”

It’s not only about the birds, though. Knoll also counts and sorts bugs and berries as a measure of food availability.

“Even as a freshman, Christina quickly emerged as an impressively responsible, smart, and talented student,” said McWilliams. “So we kept giving her more and more responsibility each year until now, in her senior year, she’s one of the first undergraduates that we’ve invited to work full-time on a field research project of her own. She’s exceeded our mighty high expectations every time.”

Knoll decided to study wildlife and conservation biology because of a childhood passion for birds, bugs, and other wildlife. She chose URI in part because it is one of the few universities she found where the coursework meets the requirements to become a Certified Associate Wildlife Biologist recognized by an international professional organization.

Once on campus, she quickly immersed herself in campus activities. She became a resident assistant, joined the Electronic Music Association, and served as a DJ on WRIU, another passion that she can’t help sharing enthusiastically with everyone around her. She calls being a DJ “a true art form. I’ve been into it since I was 15. It allows me to speak through the music. It’s a spiritual release, the best feeling in the world.”

Knoll also became president of the URI chapter of the Wildlife Society, obtained funding for the group from the Student Senate for the first time, and launched Talons: A Bird of Prey Experience, which brought live hawks, owls, and falcons to the Quad for a falconry demonstration. She demonstrates her recent enthusiasm for insects, sparked by Professor Roger LeBrun, by traveling everywhere she goes with her pet praying mantises, Beyoncé and G-Unit.

But wildlife and electronic music aren’t the only items on her personal agenda. “I also see myself as one who stands for equal rights for everyone,” Knoll said. “I care about people getting treated the way they should.”

She put that stance to the test last year when she became aware of increasing numbers of what she called hate crimes occurring on campus, including racial epithets, swastikas, and anti-gay insults. It inspired her to organize a “Stop the Hate” rally on the Quad in November 2009.

“The simplest, truest, most honest thing is that it came from me wanting to do something, to say something, to give the students a voice collectively,” she explained. “I felt passionate about the things that were happening on campus. It upset me a lot.”

What started out as a Facebook group featuring a picture of Rhody Ram with a peace sign between his horns grew into an event that brought out more than 1,000 people who share her concerns about the increasing lack of civility among people and groups, not just at the University but around the world.

The event made her a leading voice for diversity and harmony on campus. It got her and other students a place at the table when the University Equity Council discusses these issues, and it helped to establish a student equity group, I am U – URI Unity in Difference. As a result, Knoll was the 2010 recipient of the MLK Peacemaker Award from the University chaplains, and she received the New England regional Diversity Award from Students Organized Against Racism.

It also got her thinking more about her future. On one hand, she wants to follow her first passion—wildlife—go to graduate school and ultimately work in Africa to help resolve conflicts between farmers and elephants. But she also wants to enter the Peace Corps to assist people in undeveloped countries.

She said of the latter idea, “I really want to step out of the American mindset. I want to have experiences elsewhere. It comes from caring about people around the world.

“What I’ve learned about myself and my personality, though, is that I don’t know if I can be a person who can stay in one spot and do one job. I really want to be involved in so many things. I’ve even thought about working for the U.N. As long as I’m feeling like I’m contributing to society, I think I’ll be satisfied.”

By Todd McLeish